Would The Early Christians Have Closed Their Churches?

Pliny, the Roman historian and shrewd observer of events, once wrote to his friend the Emperor Trajan: “These Christians are a strange bunch. They make their God and then they eat Him.” This is one of the earliest and most important independent testimonies to the unhesitating belief of the early Church in the doctrine of transubstantiation.

If you try Googling it, it is very likely that the only reference to it that you will find is in an article by me. For censorship of inconvenient truths is now rife.

The diaconate arose so that even those who could not get to Mass could receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Him Whom the Council of Chalcedon beautifully described as “perfectly God and perfectly Man”.

Diakonia, in Greek, means “going through the dust”. In the hot and dry Middle East, where travel remains arduous even today, the deacons fearlessly went about and distributed the Bread of Life to the Faithful. So vital was their role that they were the third order of the priesthood, after Bishops and Priests.

Contrast the determination of the early Church to ensure that all who wanted the most immediate and intimate connection between creature and Creator were not denied it with the earliest published decision of the new Archbishop of Dublin, Dermot Farrell.

At first I thought the document was some sort of bad-taste joke. For it purported to be an Ad Clerum from the “Archdiocese of Dublin”. There is, of course, an Archbishop of Dublin, but, like all bishops, he presides over a Diocese. There is no such thing as an “Archdiocese”.

This unfortunate circular is written in the bureaucratic Gas-Board language that has today too often replaced the thunderous trenchancy of the early Christians. Here is how it begins:

“Clarification for Parishes regarding Level 5 Restrictions 04/03/2020. Dear Father, Further to questions raised at some of the deanery meetings during the week [at least they weren’t ‘Archdeaneries’], all religious services continue to take place online.

“The sacrament of Baptism must be celebrated only in exceptional circumstances, that is, in danger of death. Under current restrictions all religious services continue to take place online. In the interest of health and safety priests and parishes ought not to succumb to requests to distribute Holy Communion before or after Mass.” And so, drearily, on.
Worse, “Arrangements for the celebration of First Holy Communion and Confirmation should not be made until Government / HSE / diocesan guidelines indicate that it is safe to do so. Churches remain open for private prayer only. Liturgies and devotions (exposition of the blessed sacrament, rosary, stations of the cross) can take place in closed churches, online only …”. ]For future reference, your excellency, the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross are capitalised].

And the leaden clause de style: “I hope these clarifications will help solidarity between confreres and parishes so that together we can overcome the threat of the coronavirus in the community. Hopefully we will be able to return to public worship and the celebration of the Sacraments as soon as possible thus strengthening and supporting faith communities on our pilgrim journey.”

We shall pass over the lamentable punctuation, the improper use of the adverb “hopefully” and the flatulent cascade of clichés – my old Professor of Greek at Cambridge, Sir Denis Page, would have referred to them as “gaseous halations” – with which this dismal communication limps to its turgid close.

The splendid John Lacken, whose muscular Christianity is such a glorious reminder of the cheerful vigour and enthusiasm of the early Christians, thunders: “It seems that Archbishop Dermot Farrell is no longer Catholic. Jesus Christ commissioned His Apostles to feed His sheep. Archbishop Dermot Farrell has issued direct instructions that the sheep are not to be fed.

“This should be a wake-up call to all Christians that we are heading for persecution and that it is being facilitated by those who have been called by Christ to guard His flock. We are not alone and we know that, in the end, Our Lady’s Immaculate will Triumph.”

The Archbishop could and should have made no less effort than those who struggled through the dust to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the Faithful. And he should certainly not have banned the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction, both of which entail very little risk of transmitting the infection.

Meanwhile, it is worth recalling the concept of the Eucharist of Desire. Here is Fr. Hugh Barbour of the Premonstratensians, discussing the difference between the actual Eucharist and spiritual Communion.

“According to Aquinas, the difference is not as great as one might think. Let us consider that our access to Christ’s real and substantial presence in the Holy Eucharist is by our faith and charity directed toward this mystery. Our eating of Christ’s Body and Blood is an eating by faith and love, since the appearances of bread and wine are consumed. These appearances are the sign of the presence of His Body and Blood, but we obviously eat and drink His Body and Blood by our faith in His presence and our desire to be united to Him in charity, not by our physical chewing and swallowing. These natural functions, like the natural outward forms of bread and wine, are the signs of our deeper, inward spiritual eating of Him.

“Our Lord himself, in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, tells us that His presence can be understood only in a spiritual and not in a fleshly way. This does not mean that His Body and Blood are not as really present as any other thing offered to our senses; it means that we lay hold of this mystery by faith and love, not by bodily functions. So, in both a visible, sacramental Communion and in a spiritual one, we feed on the Body and Blood of Christ by faith and love, and we receive the same effects in either case.

“It remains true, however, that with the sacraments the grace is greater and more precise if we participate in the sacrament in fact and not only in desire. So our spiritual Communion is always a desire to receive the Lord sacramentally, but it is still in virtue of the Sacrament that we receive the grace of a spiritual Communion. A spiritual Communion is a genuine, though less sacramentally perfect, sharing in the Body and Blood of the Lord.

“Holy Church grants a partial indulgence for each spiritual Communion, and we can apply this indulgence to the departed, who cannot receive Communion any more. What a wonderful way to assist those who long to see God in the banquet of heaven!”

Next time an “Archdiocese” becomes vacant, step forward Fr. Hugh Barbour. In these difficult times, through the mercy of God we may, after all, receive the grace of the Sacrament of Sacraments in a manner that would have puzzled Pliny still more. We may make our God and eat Him in our hearts.